Government & Politics

New leader of Kansas’ troubled child welfare department promises ‘new transparent agency’

The newly appointed leader of Kansas’ embattled child welfare system said she will conduct a top-to-bottom review of the department and push for a “new transparent agency.”

Gina Meier-Hummel said the department also must thoroughly review and learn from cases where children are killed or severely injured. For months, critics of DCF have said the agency is more interested in protecting itself than the state’s most vulnerable children.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer introduced Meier-Hummel on Wednesday as the new secretary of the Department for Children and Families.

Colyer’s announcement comes a week after a Kansas City Star investigation exposed widespread secrecy within Kansas government. In the series, The Star found a pervasive effort inside DCF to avoid transparency, hiding behind privacy laws and internal procedures — even instructing employees to shred notes taken in meetings where the death of a child was discussed.

Meier-Hummel said she also wants to receive daily reports on missing runaways inside the foster care system and have agency officials work with lawmakers to help identify ways to improve the system.

“We want to make sure that we are responding effectively and efficiently to the concerns, especially when it comes to children’s care,” she said. “If that means we have to talk with our attorneys and we have to review policies and procedures then we certainly will do that. We will be as transparent as we can be.”

She’ll take over Dec. 1 when outgoing secretary Phyllis Gilmore retires.

Meier-Hummel is the director of the Children’s Shelter in Lawrence and has been involved in Kansas’ social service system for decades. She joined the Children’s Shelter in 2015. Prior to that, she served in positions within the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services and DCF.

She spent more than a decade working at KVC, one of the state’s foster care contractors. DCF oversees the foster care system in Kansas.

Lori Ross, a long-time Missouri advocate who is pushing for change in Kansas, said she was encouraged by Meier-Hummel’s plans for a top-to-bottom review and her desire for more openness.

“It sounds like the exact right direction for DCF,” Ross said. “A move toward transparency and accountability is going to only benefit kids who come into contact with the system in Kansas.”

Ross admitted that her initial reaction was that someone outside the Kansas system would have been a better choice.

“I’m going to be hopeful,” Ross said. “But also reserve judgment to see if she follows through with what she says she’s going to do.

“She is saying the right things. I just hope she’s ready to do what she needs to do. She needs to do a deep dive and get rid of some people.”

DCF has denied numerous open records requests from The Star regarding child deaths or serious injuries. Officials also have not answered questions regarding what the agency does to identify missteps or possible policy violations in those critical cases and whether workers are disciplined.

Dianne Keech, a former deputy director for DCF who left in 2015, said she was unable to implement a systemwide four-phase review of cases that would have identified problems with policies and procedures or state laws. Keech said she was told not to document anything after a child’s death and was instructed to shred notes taken in meetings where a death was discussed.

Agency officials later said that “records” are not being intentionally destroyed and the goal is to make sure workers do not include personal notes, which include their opinions, in a case file.

Lawmakers have described the agency as troubled and a legislative task force has met several times since August trying to identify what improvements are needed. Meier-Hummel is a member of that task force.

The challenges for Meier-Hummel are immense.

“I want to make sure DCF does make a move to solve problems,” said Rep. Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican who attended Wednesday’s announcement of Meier-Hummel’s appointment. “I really believe she is the right person at the right time to make these changes.”

Gilmore has been questioned heavily in recent months after lawmakers learned in October that more than 70 children were missing from the state’s foster care system. That controversy followed earlier news that children had stayed overnight in Kansas foster care contractors’ offices more than 100 times over the span of a year.

Meier-Hummel pledged to track children who are missing and ran away.

“I expect to have a report on my desk every morning when I walk in of the youth who are missing,” she said.

She called kids sleeping in offices “unacceptable.”

“I will work to end that process as soon as possible,” she said.

Colyer, who is expected to become Kansas governor once Sam Brownback is confirmed for a post in the Trump administration, pledged “major changes” during the news conference Wednesday.

“Sleeping in offices or losing kids is not acceptable,” Colyer said. “Number two, we are going to be transparent and accountable.”

Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and outspoken critic of DCF, said there is a crisis in the agency. And critical change is needed. 

“If you had asked me this six months ago, I probably would have been a lot more skeptical and not very enthusiastic about the appointment just because she (Meier-Hummel) has been around in the Brownback administration for awhile,” Kelly said. “But since beginning to work with her on the task force, I’ve been really impressed with her knowledge, her line of questioning.” 

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw